The Devastating Consequences of Losing Your Parents to Mass Incarceration
Over five million children in the United States have had a parent in jail—and they're often traumatized and overlooked by the system.
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid via Getty
Raymond Rodriguez doesn't remember why his dad was arrested. He doesn't even remember exactly how old he was when police officers entered the home he shared with his parents and two siblings in the Bronx, threw his dad on the floor, and took him away.
Now a 20-year-old criminal justice student at a local community college, he thinks he was about eight years old when that scene took place, but the memories blur together. Following that arrest, Rodriguez's dad remained incarcerated for the majority of his childhood, in and out of prison numerous times.
Rodriguez lived with a foster family for a while when he was younger, but then his mom regained custody of him and his two siblings. Whenever his father got out, he'd find where the family was living and move back in, until the cycle began again. The impact it had on the family was far-reaching and comprehensive, and it continues today. His dad was just released from prison, an experience Rodriguez can only describe as "really weird."
Read more: The Unique Hell of Loving Someone in Jail
No longer a child himself, Rodriguez now works with children of incarcerated parents in New York City through the Osborne Association, which runs programs for those children as part of its prison reform efforts. Though there's a paucity in programs like those the Osborne Association runs, there's no shortage of need: Over five million children in the United States—about seven percent of all children in the country—have had an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives.
Families of the incarcerated often don't know about or have access to such programs, leaving children to face their new circumstances without any friends who share their experience or advocates who know their rights. Meanwhile, law enforcement and schools can easily exacerbate the problem. Oftentimes, this is due to ignorance of the issue and how to tackle it. But sometimes, the only explanation is neglect.
Over five million children in the United States have had an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives.
As the prison population soars, so too does the number of children orphaned by mass incarceration. According to a new report titled "A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families, and Communities," the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent from 1980 to 2000. Many of them go on to live with relatives, often grandparents; others end up in the foster care system.
It goes without saying that this population of children impacted by parental incarceration looks much like the population behind bars: mostly low-income people of color, particularly African Americans. Black children are over seven times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their white peers. Latino children are over two times more likely. The majority are under ten years old.
Opportunities to traumatize a child with an incarcerated parent present themselves from the moment of arrest. Like Raymond Rodriguez watching his father thrown to the floor, many children are impacted by police officers who either don't take a child's presence into consideration or don't know how to make the situation as child-friendly as possible.
And the children who aren't home to watch their parents led away in handcuffs are often overlooked entirely by the criminal justice system—an equally distressing prospect.
Alisha Murdock was at school the first time her mother was arrested. She found out what had happened from neighbors when they showed up to take her home. "When I got home, it basically was like my house had been raided," she recalls. Today, she is 24 years old and works for Project WHAT!, a program of the San Francisco-based Community Works West that is led by children of incarcerated parents.
At the time of her mother's arrest, Murdock was 11. Her mom had been raising her alone. According to her, law enforcement never came back to check if there was a child in the house. Nobody ever contacted social services. She recalls their home having two bedrooms—one strewn with Barbie dolls—and wonders how no one thought to find the child who so clearly lived there after taking her mother away.
"That first time [my mom was arrested], it was very much like it was up to me to figure stuff out," she says. Left alone, she kept her situation secret, even from the friends who helped shelter her. "It wasn't something that I was like, 'Oh, my mom was incarcerated. Can I stay here?' It was just kind of like, 'Hey, can I spend the night with a friend?'"
Many children with incarcerated parents conceal their situation from their friends, peers, and authorities at school. According to Tanya Krupat, program director at the Osborne Association, this is due to stigma and the fear that teachers and classmates will unfairly judge the student in question once they find out about their situation.
"I understand why families may not let the teacher know that their child has an incarcerated parent," she says. "The child is likely not to receive support. Or, if something goes missing in the classroom, suspicion will fall on the child whose parent is incarcerated. We have lots of examples of that happening, unfortunately."
But, she notes, some teachers and school staff respond supportively upon learning that a child has an incarcerated parent. In those cases, the benefits can be vast, with schools and advocacy organizations working together to best meet a student's particular needs. Andrea Hope Hunter, a 16-year-old from Bloomfield, New Jersey, and a participant in Osborne's programs, thinks that her teachers and guidance counselor have been a great help to her since finding out that her mom is incarcerated.
However, she knows that she is in the minority and that a lot of children in similar situations dread spreading that information. "It's pretty rare that people in school would know about it. That's something that you want to keep to yourself because you're afraid that someone could use that against you one day," she says.
When I got home, it basically was like my house had been raided.
Training teachers to support their students with incarcerated parents—without always knowing who those students are—can be a challenge. After all, no one is obligated to inform schools of a parent's arrest, and many students don't want them to know anything about it. With such a strong stigma, the idea of requiring law enforcement or social services to inform schools is off the table, its potential effects too traumatizing for students. But given the statistics, it is, unfortunately, not unreasonable for any teacher in an urban school district to assume that she's interacting with children impacted by incarceration.
"Kids in school feel so isolated and so unsupported. There are so many things going on in their lives and teachers are not taking that into consideration when a child's parent is incarcerated," argues Ruth Morgan, the founder and executive director of Community Works West.
Experts argue that providing help to these children is crucial because the trauma they experience after being separated—often in dramatic fashion—from a parent can increase their mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, and lead to a decrease in academic performance.
According to the 2015 report "Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?," students with an incarcerated parent are more likely to have problems at school than their peers, while children with incarcerated mothers, in particular, face a higher risk of dropping out of school. And, according to "A Shared Sentence," teachers tend to lower their expectations once discovering that a child has a parent in prison or jail.
Murdock says she ran into an old teacher about a year ago and mentioned her mother's incarceration. "I remember him being like, 'Oh, I didn't know that. I just felt like you were distracted,'" she recalls. "And so I think that, in terms of schools, it starts with teachers noticing when something changes and then asking the question, like, 'Hey, is everything ok?'"
Recognizing the fact that children of incarcerated parents are often ignored by law enforcement and faced with teachers and foster care workers ignorant to their situations or untrained in how to best handle them, the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) developed a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents to outline eight basic rights to which every child is entitled. These include the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of the parent's arrest; the right to speak with, see, and touch the parent; and the right to be well cared for in the parent's absence.
Over a decade after its creation, the Bill of Rights remains a guide for the people and organizations working with and for this population, referenced in almost every conversation I had and even taped to an office wall at the Osborne Association.
But turning those basic rights into realities still proves challenging, as does avoiding indirectly punishing a child for her parent's actions. For instance, many children with incarcerated parents end up having to travel hundreds of miles for in-person contact: The Bureau of Prisons considers people to be proximate if they're housed up to 500 miles away from their place of residence. Proximity of incarcerated parents to their children is a major policy priority for advocates and a common complaint cited by the children themselves.
In addition, it's extremely challenging to measure how many police departments have actually created and enforced effective methods for keeping children safe and informed. In 2014, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released a report outlining protocol for safeguarding children at the time of arrest. How many police departments have adopted these protocols remains unknown. Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University, has seen some police departments in large cities using the document but knows that many smaller departments haven't even heard of it.
Crystallee Crain, SFCIPP's director and herself the child of a father incarcerated for murder when she was 16, says that the Bill of Rights is meant to "frame how institutions and organizations can be looking at this group of kids as a special population—not one that has a deficit but that needs different kinds of responses that don't provide additional traumatic exposure."
The focus on identifying and meeting the specific needs of this innocent but oft-ignored population remains imperative, but it's also important to recognize that these are young people who just want to be treated like their peers. When asked about advice for people interacting with children of incarcerated parents, Raymond Rodriguez bypassed the question entirely, offering this instead: "They're just a kid, just like you. Everyone bleeds the same blood."